“It was like the freaking president” was coming, Hand recalled. “He nearly shut my school down.”
Hand, who by his senior year was named the nation’s top high school football recruit, has led his teachers and classmates on a sometimes exhilarating and exhausting journey that has drawn a national spotlight to the Prince William County school. Amid the normal turmoil that is high school, Woodbridge this year has become an epicenter of the college recruiting world, a place where the Ohio State football coach might show up after chemistry class and where a jovial 17-year-old has the potential to be a millionaire sports icon.
One of the Washington region’s many large, suburban high schools, Woodbridge is known for its arts and engineering programs. Hand has become a fixture there, known both for his friendly hallway exchanges and his on-field prowess. Outside of Washington, Hand has been the talk of college recruiting chat rooms, has been featured on ESPN and has a legion of college football fans waiting anxiously for his decision about his next step.
They won’t have to wait much longer. On Thursday, Hand’s 18th birthday, after considering 94 scholarship offers, he plans to finally announce which school he wants to attend next fall from a list he has pared down to three: Alabama, Florida, and Michigan.
His decision will come during an hour-long pep rally with his family, his teammates, the band, cheerleaders and hundreds of classmates around him, all of it streamed live on the Internet. Plenty of schools each year send talented athletes on to college, but those at Woodbridge said this feels different.
“When you have the best, THE BEST, you gotta cherish it and relish it and enjoy it,” said Kevin Smith, Hand’s former football coach at Woodbridge. “This is a once in a lifetime thing.”
Within the school, the excitement among students is rising, said Christal Heyward, a 16-year old junior. They are calling Thursday “Da’Shawn Day” and coming up to him to ask if he’s ready.
“I think people are enjoying having our school in the spotlight,” she said.
Some Woodbridge teachers raised eyebrows at Hand’s pep rally — the classroom time being sacrificed, the attention being lavished on one athlete when dozens more also will be accepting scholarships for next fall. Some were reluctant to let their students attend the pep rally.
“Normally, the role that sports plays here is normal,” said Nathan Lockhart, Hand’s government teacher. “It’s an extra-curricular.”
Lockhart said Hand is a great athlete, but he said the media and recruiters have spun the situation out of control: “They have created this, and now Woodbridge is trying to deal with it.”
The Woodbridge Vikings are not a regional football powerhouse, finishing each of the past three seasons just over .500, with six victories. They are 6-4 this season and earned the final playoff spot in Virginia’s 6A South region. Recruiters see Hand, however, as a personal powerhouse.
Six feet four inches tall and 256 pounds, Hand possesses a rare combination of size and agility. Recruiters talk about his leadership potential, his intelligent approach to football, and his serious academic record.
“And we aren’t even talking about what he does when the ball is snapped,” said Jeremy Crabtree, a senior writer for ESPN’s Recruiting Nation.
Hand said he is looking forward to the moment when he places a hat from his chosen school on his head, a moment that he has dreamed of since he was a boy.
Then he’s looking forward to the whole process being over.
Recruiting starts in earnest for most student athletes after their junior year. For Hand it started shortly after he got pulled up to varsity halfway through his freshman season.
Recruiting tapes went out with footage from those first six games. Then coaches started visiting him at school. His first scholarship offer came from Boston College that same year, Hand said. Numerous others followed.
Leah Byrd, Hand’s guidance counselor in his freshman and sophomore year, said the sudden storm of attention surprised no one as much as him. He would come to her office and say, “ ‘I can’t believe this has happened, or I can’t believe this has happened,’ ’’ she recalled. “He was almost in shock.”
Three years later, his name has been branded through national rankings and high profile sports camps. A Washington Post videographer has followed the senior throughout his final high school football season for a documentary series, and one of his thundering defensive stops made the top 10 plays on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” in September.
Hand also has become a celebrity inside the walls of his own school.
“I’ve heard freshmen say his name with a kind of awe,” said Carlos Castro, his former engineering teacher.
Lately, though, the senior reminisces of his early high school days, when he was just a tall, skinny freshman no one knew. That was the last time he could let his grades slip or go out with his friends “without having to look over my shoulder,” he said.
After that, the expectations were “high, high, high,” he said.
He leaned on his father and his counselors for support, and he devoted himself to a merciless routine of school, practice, homework. He hopes that one day all the pressure and hard work will pay off.
“By the time everything is done, hopefully, I will be a millionaire or a multimillionaire,” Hand said. “I will still have 50 or 60 years of my life to do whatever I want.”
Even without football or a film crew, Hand would stand out in the crowded hallways and classrooms of Woodbridge High. The teen towers over almost everyone at the 2,800-student school, where he’s well-known for his outsize personality.
Last year, Principal David Huckestein recalled making his way through a noisy crowd of students that had gathered in the main lobby, only to find Hand on the ground doing push-ups. Huckestein’s son Tyler, then a freshman, was sitting on Hand’s back. Students were cheering.
One teacher said Hand sometimes shows up late to class because socializing slows him down.
On a recent October morning, Hand wound his way from the cafeteria to his government class, stopping to greet friends. Hugs for the girls. A handshake and a snap for the guys.
“Why don’t we hang out any more?” he called out to a friend. More hugs and handshakes followed. The bell rang, and he rounded a corner to find an empty hallway.
“I’m late!!!,” he said, throwing his hands into the air and picking up his pace.
Inside the classroom, Hand didn’t waste any time. He took out his notebook and, in careful penmanship, made detailed notes throughout the 30-minute lecture on the Federal Election Campaign Act and gerrymandering.
When musing about Hand’s college choices, Woodbridge teachers are especially animated about his academic prospects.
“A lot of people go all in with football, then they are standing there with nothing,” Huckestein said. “Da’Shawn will be successful whether it’s football or life.”
Hand’s teachers describe him as a diligent and respectful student. He took algebra and geometry while he was still in middle school, and he chose Woodbridge over his neighborhood school because it had a speciality engineering program. He aspires to design and build stadiums one day.
With engineering classes in the mix, he finished his junior year with a solid B grade-point average. And when football coaches took the well-worn path to see him at Woodbridge High, Hand said he liked to focus their conversations on the academic performance of their student athletes and their engineering or business programs.
As he goes on to college, his teachers are hoping they can hold him up as a role model for the well-rounded student-athlete.
“I would like to see him graduate with a B.S. in engineering and who knows? Maybe a first-round draft pick,” Castro said.